By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- GOP Chairman Clarence Smith and the established Mahoning County Republican Party are being challenged by an insurgent group that wants to change the direction of the political organization.
Republicans for Real Reform, formed by Mark A. Hanni, and the GOP establishment are fielding candidates in most of the 312 Republican precinct committee races. Whichever side captures the most precinct seats will control who is selected as party chairman.
Hanni had planned to run for chairman, but a party bylaw change now makes that impossible. The bylaw says only those who have voted in the previous two Republican primaries are eligible to serve as chairman. Hanni has not voted in the previous two GOP primaries.
If Hanni's precinct committee candidates had won a majority of the seats, they could have changed the bylaws, making him eligible. But Hanni said that he can no longer devote the time needed to run and that the movement is more important than his serving as chairman.
Enter Richard A. Duffett of Austintown, a special education teacher and political novice, who has stepped to the forefront and is the Real Reform's chairman candidate as long as he is elected his precinct's committeeman -- another requirement for anyone running for chairman. Smith's supporters say they are not deterred by their efforts and will do whatever is necessary to ensure his candidates win May 7, and then re-elect him to another four-year term as party chairman.
The Real Reform challenge has been the source of much controversy.
Mahoning County Board of Elections, which has Smith as a member, asked the sheriff's department to conduct an investigation of every Real Reform candidate. Hanni then called for the sheriff to investigate allegations that Smith supporters improperly used county time to recruit precinct candidates. Also, both sides sent letters to committee candidates from the other group urging them to get out of the race.